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National News

Transparency bills seek to reveal the true costs of college

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Elaine S. Povich, Stateline
February 28, 2024

University students in Alaska kept asking Republican state Sen. Robert Myers why they were being blindsided with requirements to buy expensive textbooks after they signed up for classes, he said.

Students complained to Myers that universities warned them about high tuition but not about the costs of textbooks, lab fees and equipment that also add up. Often, students sign up for classes long after their financial aid has been approved, without knowing these extra costs ahead of time and how much, if anything, is covered by the aid, Myers said in an interview with Stateline.

A University of Alaska Anchorage student complained to lawmakers about extra book costs during a hearing in 2022, said Myers, a resident of the town of North Pole.

“He was taking a class required for a degree and found out halfway through the semester there was another version of the class that was using a free textbook,” Myers said. “But his was not. He was very unhappy that he hadn’t heard about that before. That’s what this bill is trying to do.”

Myers’ bill, which would require the University of Alaska to post online a list of all materials required for each course and whether they are free, low-cost or come with a fee, passed the Alaska Senate last May with only one dissenting vote. It’s awaiting expected approval in the House, he said.

The Alaska bill is one of several pieces of pending or enacted legislation requiring public universities to disclose course material costs in half a dozen states around the country. They include a 2020 Maryland law, a 2021 Texas law and a 2023 California law.

An Illinois bill would require public universities to display course material costs. A Minnesota bill would mandate that public universities provide low-cost textbooks — of $40 or less — in at least 15% of their courses, and would require schools to regularly report on their average textbook costs.

An Ohio bill that has passed the House would require state universities to provide students a cost and financial aid disclosure form listing instructional fees, the net cost of attendance and loan repayment details.

The cost of textbooks and other course materials is small compared with tuition. But those costs are sometimes the last hurdle standing between a student and classes, according to Kim Cook, CEO of the National College Attainment Network, a nonprofit coalition of colleges and other advocacy groups that works to help students afford higher education.

“Any unanticipated costs for students could pose a barrier to attendance,” Cook said in an interview.

For example, a survey of more than 4,000 Pennsylvania college students across 14 colleges and universities late last year found that 81% said they were “worried” about the cost of textbooks and materials. The survey was commissioned by two academic library groups, Affordable Learning PA and the Partnership for Academic Library Collaboration and Innovation.

Cook said universities generally disclose the cost of tuition and “standard fees.” But some don’t include the price of required class materials or an estimate of what students are likely to spend on other needs, such as transportation.

“It all goes south when that cost of attendance doesn’t include those 17 books, or the lab fees or the cost of transportation,” she said.

But the lone Senate opponent of the Alaska bill, Democratic state Sen. Matt Claman, said he feels the measure is unnecessary and represents “undue interference” with universities.

“It’s government interference in things government should stay out of,” he said in an interview. “A well-run university is going to make this stuff available.”

If not, he said, students could demand the information through the student government.

Sara Perman, government relations manager for the University of Alaska, said the university had no problem with the bill. She said in a phone interview that all three campuses of UA, Fairbanks, Anchorage and Southeast, want to make textbooks “more affordable, and all are working to go in that direction already.”

State measures

Full-time in-state students attending a public four-year university can expect to spend an average of $1,250 a year on books and supplies and $1,290 on transportation, according to the College Board, an organization that administers standardized tests. E-books are generally less expensive than printed textbooks, and more colleges are adopting them.

The Ohio bill calls for public colleges to give students a two-page document that would include financial aid details and a list of expenses (instructional fees, tuition and estimated living costs), along with an income estimate for jobs associated with each student’s major.

Ohio state Rep. Adam Mathews, a Republican and the primary sponsor of the House-passed bill, said in an interview he expects passage this session by the Senate.

Mathews, 36, who was trained and worked initially as an engineer but is now an attorney, said he is still paying off his student loans — his undergraduate and law degrees are from the University of Notre Dame. He said his career choices enabled him to shoulder the payments, but that he wants college students to have some idea of what awaits them.

“Student loan forgiveness treats only a symptom of the problem,” Mathews said. “It doesn’t help on the front end, knowing what they are signing up for.”

He said the two-page form he anticipates would show students every likely expense, including mandatory fees and instructional costs, as well as the income range for a career with their degree. It also would outline a student’s obligations for financial aid — whether they have to maintain a certain grade-point average, for example — and what they can expect to owe.

“Before you become a future Buckeye … before you sign on that line, we want students and families to know what they are walking into,” he said, referencing the mascot for Ohio State University.

He said he got little pushback from the state universities, save for a technical detail on how many pages the sheet can be (the bill says one double-sided page) since most communication is electronic.

Some of the states got a blueprint for their bills from model legislation drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative Washington, D.C.-area group that pushes legislative initiatives in states.

Andrew Handel, the director of the education and workforce development task force at ALEC, as the group is known, said his own student experience informed the model legislation. “We would enroll in our classes online, we would never know what textbooks were required until the first day of class,” said Handel, who has two degrees from St. Louis University.

“It’s all about transparency,” he said.

ALEC’s model bill calls for the titles and retail prices of books and other materials to be available about a month before the start of an academic term, which Handel said would give students time to find the best deals.

“If there are a couple of elective English courses, and one requires 10 textbooks and one eight, that might be a couple of hundred dollars’ difference,” he said.

He said the legislation is not intended to infringe on professors’ choice of textbooks, but rather is an “effort to bring more transparency to the process.”

Voluntary efforts

Outside of the legislative activity, publishers have been working on initiatives they say will help with the costs of college textbooks.

After a U.S. Department of Education rule change in 2015, some universities began offering “inclusive access” programs, which give students automatic access to online textbooks upon enrolling in courses and include the charges in tuition and fees. Schools contract with publishing companies for the service.

Advocates of the programs say the method provides all students the same materials at a discount. But critics argue that students can’t shop around for better deals.

Another similar business model for e-books is called Cengage Unlimited, which, for a fee, allows access to a range of books.

The U.S. Department of Education is considering a change in policy to stop allowing institutions to automatically include the cost of books and supplies as part of tuition and fees. The department says the current policy raises concerns “that lack of disclosure and transparency limits students’ ability to find less expensive materials or assess if their school is offering the most affordable arrangement.”

But the Association of American Publishers, which represents textbook publishers, says the “inclusive access” rule should be kept in place, according to an email from Kelly Denson, the group’s senior vice president of education policy and programs.

“Inclusive access programs also get required course materials in students hands on — or before — the first day of class, which allows them to go into the classroom ready for success,” she wrote in a statement.

Meanwhile, hundreds of colleges and universities have committed to providing more details on a student’s total cost of attendance, including information on aid offers and student debt, as part of a voluntary program organized by the leaders of 10 national higher education associations.

That program, which says 526 schools have now signed on, is managed by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Karen McCarthy, vice president of public policy and federal relations for the group, said that in general, more transparency about college costs is a good thing. But, she said, when different states come up with different rules, it may become confusing.

“You would think the no-brainer answer would be, ‘Of course, more information is always better,’” McCarthy said. “But the devil is in the details. What information do they need, in what format?”

She said when states differ in their posting dates or emailing dates for financial aid and course selections, “it can become overwhelming to the point where we aren’t providing useful information to students anymore. It’s a bunch of piecemeal actions that overall makes the whole system a little less effective.”

She also suggested that bills like the one in Ohio that would require listing salaries of graduates in their majors is not easy to determine.

“Say you are an English major, [your salary] depends on what you do with that,” she said.

Stateline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Stateline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Scott S. Greenberger for questions: info@stateline.org. Follow Stateline on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Stateline under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.